Astute readers may have seen the writing on the Facebook wall, but we'll make it official: PickupTrucks.com's next Shootout will pit two-wheel-drive, short-bed V-6 work trucks against each other. On hand we'll have a 2011 GMC Sierra 1500 4.3-liter, a 2011 Toyota Tundra 4.0-liter, a 2010 or 2011 Ram 1500 3.7-liter and a 2011 Ford F-150 3.7-liter.
Weeks ahead of the ruckus, General Motors invited us to its Fort Wayne Assembly plant to witness our Sierra's assembly. A 20-minute drive southwest of downtown Fort Wayne, Ind., the plant sits on 716 acres just uphill of Interstate 69. Separated from the highway by a strip of underbrush and a few bunched trees, the plant's 2.85 million square feet of facilities produce most of the Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado trucks GM sells in America. Parking is to the west and south; the paint shop is on the east, with the lengthy general assembly building smack dab in the center.
Fort Wayne added a third shift last spring to accommodate the heavy-duty pickups from GM's shuttered plant in Pontiac, Mich. Fort Wayne Assembly runs nearly 24 hours a day, five days a week. By the time we showed up – 8 a.m. on Sept. 29 – our Sierra was already through the paint shop. It's a cherry-red single cab, easy to pick out in General Assembly among the silver and white extended cabs to each side. The chassis and drivetrain proved harder to track down, but plant planning administrator Carmen Mangrum pointed us toward the manifest sheets tagged to each. Ours was truck 1660. With a line-side seat as the components made their way toward a finished product, we chatted with Mangrum and plant spokeswoman Stephanie Jentgen. Check out photos of the Sierra, and stay tuned for the Shootout results in November.
Our Sierra's 4.3-liter V-6 moves along the motor line, stopping at dozens of stations for exactly 57 seconds each, Mangrum said. Shipped from GM's powertrain facility in Romulus, Mich., the engine comes stripped down but essentially assembled. Line workers at Fort Wayne add an array of accessories, from wiring harnesses and hoses to air filters and airflow manifolds.
The chassis — with axles, brakes and suspension members installed — makes its way down the line. Should something run awry, a line worker can pull a yellow cord, and his or her station number shows up on an overhead display – Mangrum calls them "bingo boards" – for a team leader to assist.
Like in other assembly plants we've visited, an overhead musical tone alerts team leaders that someone in the section needs help. The songs periodically chime overhead, themes to "Star Wars," "The Addams Family" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" among them.
The drivetrain, including the four-speed automatic transmission, is hoisted onto the chassis, which has been traveling along a separate line. Sequencing the two is critical. There are a dozen separate frames for the Silverado and Sierra, Mangrum said, as each one carries unique motor mounts and suspension arrangements, among myriad other components.
With the engine and transmission mounted, the Sierra's chassis gets wheels. The wheels and tires arrive from separate conveyors; they're joined by machine, filled with an automated air compressor to 35 psi and balanced. Each tire then gets a thumb-sized spot of paint to signal it's been balanced. Among Mangrum's many duties is managing the sequencing order – and wheels can be particularly frustrating: "That's one of the things marketing likes to do that drives us nuts: changing the grille, changing the wheels," he said.
The cab and box arrive from separate carriers to a line that's parallel to the chassis. The box has already been accessorized with Sierra and GMC emblems, a tailgate and taillights in the paint shop – steps that normally occur on the general assembly floor, were it not so full. Between base coats, clear coats and a final bake oven, the truck spends eight to 10 hours in paint, Mangrum said.
An orange hoist picks up the cab and box, transferring them to the chassis. At this point, it's made its way through four major areas on the trim line – "kind of like four different blocks in a horseshoe shape," Mangrum said – and is ready for final assembly.
The hoist marries the bed and the box, beginning to lower them onto the ladder chassis.
Line workers attach the bed and box to the chassis as the hoist redeploys to the next truck. If a line worker inadvertently bumps something out of alignment, the worker needs to throw on an indicator sticker, Mangrum said. The truck completes assembly but then gets pulled so any potential issues can be addressed.
The finished cabin has no shortage of plastic wrappings. Through the trim line it's been outfitted with seats, windows, a dashboard and much more; it's effectively complete. Many components – seats, for instance – come sequenced from suppliers, Jentgen said, arriving at the plant in the order they'll be installed.
Line workers fill the tank with just three gallons of gas, enough to get through a quarter-mile test track and off to the dealer with a gallon or so to spare, Jentgen said.
The fenders and hood, traveling along a separate line, are attached. Shortly after this, workers take a soft mallet to the door close-outs to ensure a proper fit. If the door alignment is so bad a worker can't fix it, he or she will mark it so it goes off the line, Mangrum said. Typically that indicates more serious issues to address, he added.
With the hood and fenders installed, line workers mount the headlights, grille and front bumper ...
... and attach the Sierra's logo.
Assembly complete; No. 1660 heads off the line. Federal law requires the odometer to document all driving, even on the factory floor, Mangrum said. That's why you'll seldom find a new truck on a dealer lot with zero miles on it.
Next time we see this 2011 GMC Sierra 1500, it will be ready and waiting for the start of the 2010 V-6 Shootout.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun